KYIV — “We’ve sold everything we own back in the States,” Rigan tells Yahoo News, speaking at a cafe in Ukraine’s capital. “And if I have $500 in my bank account, I’d be surprised.”
Rigan, who doesn’t disclose her last name for security reasons, runs Augustae Annia, a small organization that delivers lifesaving medical equipment and training to Ukrainian troops on the frontlines, as well as Ukrainian civilians behind them, amid the Russian invasion.
She is representative of a group of Americans — unclear in number — who operate under the radar for the Ukrainian cause, and who have made extraordinary personal and financial sacrifices on behalf of the embattled country. All of Augustae Annia’s current budget has been financed by friends and family, as well as personal funds.
The Ukrainian military has expanded hugely and has heavily relied on such volunteer organizations — small and large — to provide this type of critical support in the months since Russia’s full-scale invasion began. “The outfitting of the Ukrainian military midfight is a huge task,” Rigan says. “Volunteers like us can get an individual unit the training or equipment they desperately need — quickly.”
Requests for tourniquets and other cheap but critical trauma supplies have been overwhelming Ukrainian production capabilities, Rigan explains. Another major problem has been an influx of fake or low-quality supplies, which have been costing lives when they fail during use at the frontline.
For Rigan, Ukraine is the latest in a long line of humanitarian missions, starting with the response to Hurricane Katrina in the United States back in 2005, and most recently with helping with resettlement operations for refugees from Afghanistan. “Professionally, I’m an incident commander for natural disaster response,” she says. “It’s a calling.”
The other member of Rigan’s ground operation is a Ukrainian American who goes by the callsign of “Crow.” He is the first member of his family to have returned to the old country for generations. “I’m the first one back in the country since 1942,” he says. Members of his family survived the Holodomor — the devastating famine allegedly orchestrated by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — and the Nazi concentration camps, before fleeing the country.
Just returning to Ukraine was a big step for Crow. “My grandmother told me there was nothing but pain in Ukraine,” he recalled when he told her of his intent to return, in 2014, in response to the initial Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. “For both her and my grandfather, there was nothing left in Ukraine for them,” he added. At the time, she successfully persuaded him not to go back.
His grandmother died a few years later. And when the full-scale Russian invasion began, over a year ago, “there was no one alive to tell me no,” he says. He quit his job, sold everything he owned and headed over to Ukraine. Crow initially came to Ukraine with intent to be a soldier in Ukraine’s International Legion but soon realized he could do more good as a humanitarian volunteer. He met Rigan through mutual friends, and they have worked together ever since.
Rigan and Crow’s work in Ukraine is hard, routinely dangerous and totally unpaid. It has taken them into the Ukrainian fortress city of Bakhmut, where some of the most brutal fighting of the war has taken place. “Christmas, New Year’s Day, my birthday — we spent them all in Bakhmut,” Crow says.
And much of the time has been spent facing the threat of Russian artillery strikes. Crow recounted seeing incoming 203mm “Pion” shells demolishing a building right in front of them.
One of the team’s safe houses is in a part of the city now occupied by Russian forces, and knowing what part of the city is occupied by which force is a matter of life and death. “We never go anywhere without satellite maps and a detailed plan,” Rigan says.
There are moments of levity during their work as well. After a recent delivery of a pair of generators to a Ukrainian National Guard Unit, fighting in the Bakhmut, their unit commander commented that they “must be from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”
There are also incredibly somber moments. After asking a volunteer unit from Poltava what supplies they wanted, the unit commander looked them in the eyes and said, “We need tanks. We want to go home.” There were only 10 out of 72 men remaining in their unit, Crow said, after two-and-a-half months of combat in Bakhmut. Despite this, the commander still insisted on giving the volunteers food and hot drinks.
Even when they can’t provide what the unit needs, both Rigan and Crow are determined to continue the work. “We’re here until the money runs out, or they kick us out,” Crow says, laughing. He then reflects for a moment. “Or hopefully, Ukraine wins the war.”